The UK’s farmers are fighting back against British trade deals with the likes of Australia, which they say result in unfair competition and compromised food standards. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

There has been a lot of beef around the UK’s trade agreement with Australia, with British farmers and consumer groups warning of a compromise in food standards and animal welfare being at risk.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drink Exporters Association reported on plummeting exports of UK food and drink to the EU in the first quarter of 2021, which fell 47% compared with the same quarter in 2020 as a result of the “ongoing impacts of Covid-19 and changes in the UK’s trading relationships”.

Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the UK's Food and Drink Federation, said in a statement: “The loss of £2bn of exports to the EU is a disaster for our industry, and is a very clear indication of the scale of losses that UK manufacturers face in the longer term due to new trade barriers with the EU.”

Establishing free trade agreements with non-EU countries has been central to the agenda of many Conservative Party politicians, keen to prove that a post-Brexit Britain will be more prosperous now that the country has “taken back control”. However, concerns are growing about the impact of the trade deals the country is signing on food standards and the level of competition British farmers will have to contend with.

Food after Brexit: to lower or not to lower food standards

Should the UK government lower its food standards to enable exports from countries that have signed trade deals, the domestic market could suffer as well.

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Such a move may prompt British farmers to, for example, use pesticides that are currently banned in the EU in order to compete with imports of cheap products from non-EU markets.

In turn, this would make trading with EU countries more difficult, and this market still accounts for about 60% of UK agricultural exports, according to a report on post-Brexit trade deals and the implications for UK pesticide standards by Pesticide Action Network UK and the farming alliance Sustain.

Commenting on the free trade agreement with Australia, Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at Sustain, said in a press release: “The UK government says Australia shares our high standards, yet Australia permits the use of hormones and antibiotics as growth promoters in animal farming, as well as many more pesticides than British farmers are permitted to use."

British consumers are not willing to sacrifice their food standards in the name of free trade deals either, a YouGov poll centred on a trade deal with the US showed, with 79% of respondents stating they would find lower-quality imports from the US such as vegetables grown with pesticides banned in the EU unacceptable, and up to 80% of respondents objecting to hormone-fed chicken being imported to the UK.

It is not just food standards that are the issue. Given the climate crisis the world is going through, environmental standards are also at stake here, according to Hird. “Australia also has an abysmal record on deforesting to make way for agriculture and on tackling climate change," she added. "Australians interested in tackling climate change are disappointed that the UK has not taken a much stronger stance, and so are we. We hope MPs will act on behalf of all of us and tell the government this deal is not good enough.”

Trading with the land down under and beyond

These issues do not just concern the UK-Australia trade deal, however. Post-Brexit trade agreements with countries such as the US have put food safety centre stage – especially headline-making concerns over chlorinated chicken –  and more recently, in February 2021, the UK applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

One of the world’s largest free trade agreements, the CPTPP comprises 11 member countries across the globe, from Latin America (Chile, Mexico and Peru), to Asia (Brunei, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam), via Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) and North America (Canada).

Once again, food standards – and pesticide use in particular – is an issue here. According to another report by Sustain and Pesticide Network UK, this time looking specifically into the CPTPP, a total of 119 pesticides that are banned in the UK for health or environmental reasons are allowed to be used in one or more of the CPTPP member countries. On top of this, 67 of those pesticides are known as 'highly hazardous pesticides', a concept originated from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, says the report.

Regulation is key to preserving British food standards

Introducing free trade agreements with countries such as New Zealand, which is a leader in agricultural exports but also has lower food standards than the UK, can be detrimental to consumers and farmers, which is why industry bodies such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) are demanding that the government puts standards and safety first in any post-Brexit deals.

Commenting on the UK-Australia deal, NFU president Minette Batters said: “Looking ahead, it is vital that the UK government approaches its other negotiations with countries such as New Zealand, the US, Canada and Mexico – all major agricultural producers and exporters – on its own terms and ensures that future deals balance access to UK agricultural markets with at least the same level of opportunities for British agri-food exports.

"The cumulative impact of these deals could have a major impact on UK farming, and if handled badly it may become impossible for some of our farm businesses to continue to compete.”

It will be seen in the years to come how Brexit affects food safety standards in the UK, as well as the fortunes of farmers and food manufacturing in general, but many are voicing concerns that 'independence' from the EU is bringing down food standards in the UK.